GYORY: 10 STEPS THE DEMOCRATS CAN TAKE TO FIND THE DISCIPLINE NEEDED TO WIN IN 2020
This is the third column assessing the question of whether the Democrats have the discipline to win in 2020? The first column on August 13th spotlighted the arithmetic underlying the tipping points in the electorate for a Democratic victory. The second column on September 3rd took a step back to assess the essential challenges facing the Democrats attempt to win in 2020.
This column advances 10 steps which I believe would best forge the steely discipline required for the Democrats to decisively defeat Trump’s Republican party in the 2020 campaign:
1. Put the Economic Christmas Tree in the Stand: Focus groups from back in 2016, revealed that many swing voters felt that the Democratic approach did not speak to their concerns on the economy. Hillary Clinton’s reflex of listing separate domestic policy proposals, as if shiny ornaments for a Christmas tree, without an overreaching economic narrative, left these swing voters feeling left out. No surprise then that too many swing voters back in 2016, bought into the Republican messaging that the Democrats’ were pursuing identity politics, which left them feeling excluded. The best antidote to this GOP tactic, is not for Democrats to ignore their base (especially people of color, who have been on the short end of the social justice stick, for far too long). Instead, the best antidote is to plant an inclusive an Evergreen tree on the economy firmly in the stand, so that Democrats have a tree on which to hang those shiny policy ornaments.
2. Donald Trump as Kaiser Wilhem on Foreign Policy: A compelling narrative to bring Trump down with voters, is not to portray Trump as a powerful dictator in waiting, instead it is to accurately portray him as a bumbling failure in terms of foreign policy. First, this approach will enrage Trump, given his chronic and deep seeded insecurities. Second, events are proving this case to voters with each passing day (the decline of unity among our NATO allies, the hot and cold approach to our policy towards Iran bordering on the incoherent, North Korea flouting any pretext of denuclearization, the hard dollar losses to American consumers from the trade war, Trump’s caddying for Putin on Syria, Afghanistan and the Ukraine, as well as Russian interference in our elections, not to mention the looming threat to the world economy attending a no deal Brexit). Three, Trump’s lowest issue ratings in the polling data have consistently been on foreign policy issues (i.e., so this approach targets Trump’s weakness).
A. In short, Democrats should bring a spotlight to the foreign policy debate which shines a bright light on reality: President Trump is a weak, vain, disorganized and bumbling force in foreign policy (e.g., Trump as a Kaiser Wilhelm, which can lead to much worse days for America). The public doesn’t remember Kaiser Wilhem, so Democrats should not advance that analogy, but there are narrative cultural references that the public will easily grasp, allowing the Democrats lots or room to craft a compelling narrative (e.g., either portraying Trump as the feeble Wizard of Oz behind an empty curtain, or reminding voters that in the real world, Inspector Clouseau is a tragic, not a comedic figure).
B. The most devastating verdict for Trump would be if public opinion comes to see his Presidency not as a refreshing disrupter of Washington’s dysfunction, but as a force for disorder in the world which is harming the American economy. The desired antidote for this would be a Democratic administration which can promote order and not disarray in the world (the messaging should be that the Democrats will bring a quiet strength to foreign policy, while Trump vintage MAGA is MAD – Making America Decline).
C. So far only Buttigieg and Biden have given major foreign policy speeches designed to mark this terrain for Democrats. The other presidential candidates should join in that critique. Foreign policy can become a two edged sword for the Democrats, exposing Trump’s essential weakness, while establishing a renewed respect for Democrats in the public eye (this approach could resonate strongly with conservative Democrats, moderate Independents and older voters).
3. Perot’s Charts: In the 1992 campaign, the late Ross Perot did not win the election, but his charts drove home, via de facto infomercials on TV, a consensus in public opinion, which set the stage for the balanced budget compromises enacted in Clinton’s second term. Amazingly, neither party has since replicated the persuasive magic of Perot’s flip chart TV advertising. If the billionaires, who gravitate toward the Democrats and/or against Trump (Tom Steyer, George Soros, Michael Bloomberg and Howard Schultz) really wanted to deliver a strong blow against Trump, they could produce and pay for a massive wave of fact based TV advertising (including on Fox News).
A. The topics for this advertising should be the big issues: the economy, health care, climate change and America’s decaying infrastructure. These ads need not at first attack Trump, instead they should begin by spotlighting the problems facing America with fact based charts (e.g., to his credit Mike Bloomberg has already functionally done this around gun control and seems to be heading this way on climate change).
B. For example, this adverting could track: jobs losses in red under Bush compared to job growth in blue under Clinton and Obama and the real record on growth in jobs and median income under both Obama and Trump; the growth of deficits and the performance of the stock market under Clinton, Bush, Obama and Trump. Another topic should be who pays for tariffs, and its impact on consumer purchasing power (proving that tariffs are in fact a tax). Such charts in red and blue, pounded home in TV ads, could become potent in the face of Trump’s false assertion that he alone has created economic growth.
C. If these factual chart based TV ads were layered in, they could help form a new baseline in the public’s mind around actual facts. Then Trump’s flippant approach to misstating facts might just hit an invisible wall (especially among swing voters in general and Independents in particular, for Independents have repeatedly told pollsters they are primarily focused upon the economy).
D. Moreover, if the economy slowed down next year (much less went into a recession), or if climate based disasters multiplied (between now and November of 2020), then the negative impact of these fact based chart heavy TV ads, upon Trump’s Republicans could be easily transformed into damaging attack ads during the stretch run of the 2020 campaign.
4. Acing the Michael Moore Test: In commentary on MSNBC after one of the Democrats’ July debates, Michael Moore made an astute observation. Moore noted that when you were talking about working class voters in today’s America, the vast majority of those voters were now blue collar white women and minority workers, no longer primarily white men. Democrats need to reach out to those voters on the issues that make a difference in their lives: minimum wage, paid family leave, health care coverage for pre-existing conditions (given the high rate of injury in many blue collar occupations), home ownership, gun violence and opioid addiction.
A. Democrats should remember that they need to package these appeals in persuasive messaging. This means adjusting Democratic messaging to voters, who in the past have been skeptical of liberal melodies, which often appear as condescending and impractical to the skeptical eyes and often alienated ears of: blue collar white women, middle aged Hispanic men, younger black men, as well as blue collar white men.
5. Micro targeting: Once the macroeconomic Christmas tree has been firmly planted, Democratic should not be shy about micro targeting persuasive appeals to key constituencies both with swing voters (the near third of the electorate some college but not a four year degree and blue collar white women with a High School or less level of education) and those legs in the Democrats base where high turnout is not assured (minority men and millennials).
A. The WSJ recently reported on the Cooperative Congressional Election Study which showed that from 2012 to 2016 the Democrats’ share of the vote from union members dropped from 65 percent to 54 percent. That drop off was disproportionately higher among white men (from 55 percent voting for Obama to 39 percent voting for Hillary Clinton), than white women (fell from 61 percent for Obama to 56 percent for Clinton). Meanwhile, the real surprise in this study was the fall off among minority union men (from 82 percent voting for Obama to only 68 percent voting for Clinton in 2016). By contrast among non-white female union members, there was an improvement (in 2012 these female union members supported Obama over Romney by 86-14 percent but voted for Clinton over Trump by 87-8 percent). Therefore, micro targeting male union members: white, black and Hispanic will become a necessity in next year’s campaign, if the Democrats are to run a smart campaign. This is a prime place to shave down the Trump coalition from 2016.
6. If the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals overturns Obamacare, the Democrats should speak with one voice, just as they did on gun control and domestic terrorism after the slaughter in El Paso: The most unifying issue for both the Democratic base and swing voters in 2018, was opposition the Republican assault on the ACA, especially the need to protect against discrimination over pre-exiting conditions. Yet, in their debates, the Democratic presidential candidates have inexplicably spent more time arguing over their differences on payment strategies in the health care debate, than over what cements the anti-Trump majority in the electorate (e.g., defending coverage protections for pre-existing conditions).
A. If the Fifth Circuit upholds the trial court judge’s finding that the ACA was unconstitutional (in a case brought by the GOP’s Attorney Generals and now supported by Trump’s Justice Department), the entire Democratic Party (both its presidential field and it congressional wing) should strike hard, early and often at the Republican assault on pre-existing conditions. This difference on health care coverage in terms of partisan approach should be burned into the public consciousness by Democrats as if with a branding iron.
7. A Rural Initiative: In the New Deal era, FDR did not need the farm vote to win the presidency, but farmers were among the worst victims of the Great Depression. FDR recognized that addressing rural poverty was the right thing to do, in binding the country together in the Depression’s darkest days, as well as for advancing a broad economic recovery. The Democrats would be wise to redeploy that lesson next year. The trade war that Trump has been bumbling and stumbling into, will hurt all American consumers, but it has been be singularly cruel to the agricultural economy. The Democrats should therefore fashion a robust rural initiative to implicitly give the lie to Trump’s unalloyed assertion that the trade war is not hurting farmers (showing that Democrats care about rural areas; kudos to Elizabeth Warren for already putting out a rural plan).
A. To Democratic pundits, I would argue, that they should not care if a rural initiative only turns 3-5 percent to the rural small town vote their way (which in turns amounts to only 17-19 percent of the total electorate, next November).
B. For by doing the right thing (addressing the economic travail of the farmers in the wake of Trump’s trade war), Democrats would be simultaneously reaching out to a large swath of swing voters beyond rural America, who voted for Trump in 2016 but for Democrats in 2018 and those who the polling data show are opposed to this trade war both in term of policy and practicality (e.g., Independents, whites over 60 years of age, waitress moms and yes middle aged Hispanic men, many of whom have worked the land in their youth).
8. Engage the Democratic Governors: Democratic Governors now hold power in more key Electoral College states (North Carolina, Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania), the large vote producing states (New York, California and Illinois) and are crafting some exciting policy advances (in Montana, Washington state, Colorado and Rhode Island). Many of these Governors won by landslide margins last year (e.g., Cuomo in New York, Newsom in California and Gretchen Whitmer in Michigan). The Democrats ought deploy their Governors next year to make the case against Trump on the bread and butter issues (infrastructure, skills based employment, education and affordable housing) as well as on criminal justice reform and on climate change.
9. The Moliere Project: President Trump uses his tweets to create shiny new objects designed to divert attention from his administration’s failures and his own numerous gaffes. The media feels honor bound to report President Trump’s tweets. Consequently, I have a serious, albeit puckish, suggestion to put forward. The Democrats should deploy what I will call the Moliere project (named after the 17th century French playwright whose specialty was using farce as a potent literary weapon). Since we know that the media will cover Trump’s tweets, precisely because he is the President, no matter how outlandish or untrue those tweets are, they should correspondingly be duty bound to report any response tweets from a Democratic elected official.
A. In short, it could become an effective tool if a Democratic elected official, with a witty flare for irony and farce, who does not have to worry about his or her re-election, put out instant response tweets that at once mimic and mock Trump’s tweets. That could make Trump look small and perhaps ridiculous, not to mention blocking Trump’s tweets from dominating the derivative articles or sound bites. The key will be forcing the media to cover the clever tweets coming from this Democratic Moliere. It would help if millions of Americans followed this Moliere on twitter, making it tougher for the media to ignore these instant response tweets from a Democratic elected official.
B. Congressman Steve Cohen of Tennessee springs to mind, as a potential Moliere. But let’s see if any other Democratic elected official is willing and adept at playing the Moliere card, to unsettle the ground under Donald Trump’s feet for the duration of the 2020 presidential campaign. Moreover, the Democrats might benefit from having multiple Moliere’s advance this project.
10. The Hickenlooper Road to Redemption: Unless the Democrats can retake the United States Senate they will not be able to govern effectively, even if they defeat Trump’s re-election next November. To govern effectively, Democrats will need to win back the Senate with a firm majority. Simply put, the Democrats will not be able to advance health care coverage, enact a robust infrastructure plan, pass responsible gun control measures or expeditiously move on court confirmations, without at least 52 or 53 Democratic Senate seats beginning in January of 2021.
A. John Hickenlooper showed the way. When his presidential campaign did not bear fruit, former Governor Hickenlooper stepped back to run for the Senate from Colorado. By temperament, Hickenlooper is an executive, not a legislator, but his potential to beat Senator Cory Gardner in Colorado, has now given the Democrats a core four of prime Senate targets (Colorado, Maine, Arizona and North Carolina). Hickenlooper’s running for a purpose larger than his own ambitions, needs to be replicated by other Democrats.
B. Given the difficulty of holding Doug Jones’ seat in Alabama, to secure a net gain of 5 seats (brining the Democrats to at least 52 seats) the Democrats need to stretch the Republicans by forcing them to aggressively defend what were once considered safe seats (e.g., as Amy McGrath is effectively doing against McConnell in Kentucky and Jaime Harrison is on the verge of accomplishing in South Carolina against Lindsey Graham). To improve their chances in Colorado, Maine, Arizona, North Carolina, Iowa and Alabama, the Democrats would greatly benefit from serious challenges in Montana, Georgia and Texas. In addition, Kansas could become a promising wild card race if Kris Kobach won the Republican primary (perhaps replicating Kobach’s general election defeat in Kansas’ gubernatorial general election in 2016).
C. Clearly, if Governor Steve Bullock and former Congressman Beto O’Rourke dropped out of the presidential race (which neither has gained any traction in), and ran for the Senate, they would immediately put the Montana and Texas Senate seats in play. If Stacey Abrams ran in Georgia, given that now two Senate seats will be on the ballot in Georgia next year, she would probably jump ahead of her Republican opponent in the polls in either race. Add these three seats to the mix of the core four races, plus Kentucky, South Carolina and Iowa and the GOP will have at least ten seats to defend compared to the Democrats defense of Alabama. If the Democrats could win six or even five of those eleven seats, they would hold a clear majority, and for the first time since January of 2009, a realistic chance for achieving success in governing. Not to mention this full court press by a veritable Democratic Dream Team of Senate candidates, would take resources away from any serious hopes for a Republican upset in either the Minnesota or Michigan Senate races.
D. Democrats from the grass roots, through their congressional leadership, on up to former President Obama should deploy a mix of carrots and sticks to persuade Bullock, O’Rourke and Abrams into reconsidering their refusal to run for US Senate seats. The Democrats need sustained success at governing to truly restore their brand. Therefore, it is high time for a disciplined Democratic party to put the question to Bullock, O’Rourke and Abrams: your previous answers regarding not running for the United States Senate are simply not acceptable.
Let me end with a simple message to those Democrats, Independents and the Never Trump Republicans who oppose and are often horrified at Trump’s presidency. It is clear, that you form a majority of the electorate according to the current polling data.
A winning coalition will be one which unites the so-called woke millennials in the Democrats’ urban base, with older traditional Democrats, whose iron triangle has historically produced primary victories (minority voters, Suburban women as well as White Catholic and Jewish voters) and the moderate Independents who drive the general election outcome in the near majority of the overall electorate which lives in the nation’s suburbs, as well as Never Trump Republicans who can become the final piece of the puzzle in defeating Trump. Binding that diverse electoral coalition together will neither be easy, nor automatic for Democrats, especially given the active and asymmetrical attacking defense that a Donald Trump campaign will inevitably deploy. Trump may be atrocious at governing , but he has proven himself to be a calculating, aggressive and resourceful campaigner.
Going into 2020, to succeed the Democrats need to fashion a campaign message and a turnout engine which can drive the full breadth and depth of the nation’s anti-Trump majority. There is simply not a progressive majority in the American electorate. There is an engaged progressive pulse, but it is just over a quarter of the American electorate, on its way towards becoming a third of the electorate over the next decade. Therefore to harness an electoral majority against Trump in 2020, this progressive pulse must connect with moderate and conservative Democrats, Independents and Never Trump Republicans.
This challenge in coalition building is a staple in the history of realigning elections in American politics. After all Lincoln and FDR had to cobble together disparate and at times warring factions to produce their realignment victories. The 2020 campaign provides an opportunity to transform the Obama coalition into a realigned majority of the American electorate, which begins to vault over Red America and Blue America, to recast a new American majority.
Simply put, Democrats need to reject an approach which piously preaches either that November doesn’t count or that bold action on policy is not worth the effort. Without discipline, however, Democrats will not forge a purposeful majority.
Bruce N. Gyory is a political and strategic consultant at Manatt, Phelps & Phillips LLP and an Adjunct Professor of political science at the University of Albany.